Can't understand why a loved one would vote for a raging, divisive moron? Let the academics who spend their lives studying cults help break it down.
America was watching, the world was watching, and Donald Trump needed everyone to understand just how dire the straits really were.
“Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation,” he proclaimed ominously as he officially accepted the Republican nomination for president at the party’s convention in Cleveland last month. It was a grim portrait of America, a once-great nation ravaged by terrorism, “poverty and violence” at home, “war and destruction” overseas.
The solution? Not God. Or patriotism. Or casting aside party loyalty to come together as a nation. No, politicians had rallied under those virtuous banners before, and where had it gotten us? Instead, the newly-crowned nominee offered a more messianic promise: that Trump—and only Trump—can get things back on track.
That’s the moment, says Rick Alan Ross, America’s leading cult expert, when he realized Trumpism had striking similarities to the fanatical groups he studies.
Like many moderates in the party, Ross, the executive director of the Cult Education Institute and a lifelong Republican, had watched Trump’s rise with mounting distaste. But Trump’s rhetoric at the RNC—“I alone can fix it”—clicked the pieces into place. “That kind of pronouncement is typical of many cult leaders, who say that ‘my way is the only way, I am the only one,’” Ross says. “That was a very defining moment.”
When I called Ross, I cut right to the chase, asking, “Is Trump a cult leader?” I didn’t get more than a few words in for the next 20 minutes as he dove into the evidence: the nominee’s deep-rooted narcissism, lack of transparency, many of his supporters’ blind, full-throttled adoration. A week later, he left me two voicemails outlining the warning signs of narcissistic personality disorder in the candidate, and a week after that, followed up with another batch of emails expounding on Trump’s similarities to the cults he studies. There was a lot to dig into.
Sign I: His campaign is fueled by charisma.
Growing up in Beaumont, Texas, in the ‘90s, Tania Vojvodic was enamored with the “handsome, smart, successful” businessman Donald Trump. A devout Southern Pentecostal turned pageant queen who’d shed her long skirts in favor of swimsuits and heels, she’d first heard about him when he bought the Miss Universe empire, in 1996. Vojvodic loved that everything he touched “turned to gold,” she says. She drew inspiration from the blunt maxims in The Art of the Deal, making “don’t let your attitude become a liability” her personal mantra. And most of all, she admired that underneath the Brioni suits and artificial tan, he was “just this average guy.” A Queens-bred kid who’d made it big. He made success, a better life for a single teen mom struggling to make it in East Texas, seem attainable.
“I've lived by the Trump ideology since I was 15,” Vojvodic, who now runs the volunteer network Team Trump 2016, says. “That ideology has helped me to be successful in almost everything that I do. And I adore Mr. Trump.”
For his followers, the appeal of Trump is Trump himself: his take-no-bullshit attitude, his (greatly embellished) only-in-America success story, his apparent business savvy. His policies, which are largely vague or nonexistent, aren’t the main draw (his 180 on immigration, one of the defining issues of his campaign, doesn’t appear to bother his supporters). And that’s where he perfectly fits the cult archetype.
“The single most salient feature of a cult is a person who has become, essentially, an object of worship,” Ross says. They’re the “defining element of the group,” the heart of the movement.
Even The Donald’s personal habits have inspired his followers. In May, Politico ran a story about an entire Reddit community of millennial bros who’d gotten sober thanks to Trump, who doesn’t drink or do drugs. “Trump has inspired me,” wrote a crystal meth addict who’d been clean for two months. “I’m getting sober and doing my bit to Make America Great Again. Thank you Donald!” The epiphanies continued, from “How Donald inspired me to be a great American once again” to “Trump saved my life!”
His brand is Trump, and without him, there wouldn’t be a movement.
Sign II: He’s a raging narcissist.
On a Sunday in June, as details were just beginning to emerge about the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub, Trump’s first act wasn’t to offer consolation, thoughts or prayers. Instead, he made it about himself. “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” he tweeted.
“Cult leaders are most often narcissists,” Ross explains. “They see themselves as the center of the known universe, and everyone revolves around them.” Trump, he says, fits the warning signs of narcissistic personality disorder—an exaggerated sense of self-importance, preoccupation with success, power and brilliance, behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner—to a T (for Trump, probably). Lest we forget, Trump says he went to the “best school in the world,” has “the world’s greatest memory,” and will be “the greatest jobs president God has ever created.”
And if you disagree, don’t even think of fucking with him. Tony Ortega, a journalist who has covered Scientology since 1995, sees parallels between the litigious church and Trump’s need to discredit any and all threats to his power. “Scientology is a bully,” Ortega says. “If somebody speaks up against Scientology, Scientology will set private investigators on them to destroy them. It could be just a small person that decided not to take it anymore. And I think people see that in Trump.”
Sign III: What he says is always right. Even when it's not.
L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, lied about nearly every aspect of his life. He wasn’t a nuclear physicist, for one. He didn’t graduate from college. And he definitely didn’t create the U.S. Air Force. But for Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and other devout Scientologists, proof of these lies—even with definitive documentation—doesn’t matter.
“You just can't put that material in front of a true believer and it has any effect,” Ortega says. “And I think people are seeing the same thing with Trump. Trump creates this sort of field, this bubble, that the people inside of it are just incapable of seeing these things as those on the outside.”
That reality distortion field is in full force with Trump’s supporters. Despite his bankruptcies and spectacular business failings (Trump Vodka, anyone? No?), the notion that he’s a successful businessman who would bring the same acuity to running the country is one of the pillars of his campaign. And though nearly 80 percent of the things he says are outright lies, he manages to pin the blame on the “dishonest” and “biased” media. Many of his followers, already distrustful of mainstream news outlets, accept whatever rationalization he provides, no matter how outlandish.
It’s spurred on by the partisan nature of how we consume media across the board; we tend to gravitate toward news sources that fortify our own views, creating an echo chamber that reinforces them even more. Nowhere was that more evident than earlier this month, when the Trump campaign brought on Steve Bannon, the CEO of right-wing conspiracy-hucksters Breitbart News, as its new chief executive, bringing the biased media full circle.
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Can’t understand why someone you’re close with would vote for Trump? The best way to convince them, says Ortega, is to be patient—and avoid confrontation. “All you can do is just say, ‘Listen, whatever you get involved with, you're still my brother, I still love you, I want to hear about what you're going through, and I want to keep talking.'" At some point, the inconsistencies will break through, and you want them to feel comfortable coming to you. (Also: helpful for loved ones who happen to be Scientologists.)
Politicians have had cult followings before—think then-Sen. Obama in 2008, or the 2016 #FeeltheBern army. But Ross insists that Trump is different. “You could see that ‘Feeling the Bern’ was almost like following the Grateful Dead or following Phish,” Ross says. But the way both eventually made amends with Clinton, their former rival, was out of step with what a cult leader would ever do. “That was very not like Donald Trump.”
Trump doesn’t consider all women his spiritual wives, like the Branch Davidians’ David Koresh. And we can reasonably assume that he does not have plans to kill his supporters by giving them cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, as the Rev. Jim Jones did at his Guyana compound in 1978. Still, his ascendency could very well start a nuclear war. “We’re not talking about a compound with a thousand people,” Ross says. “We’re talking about a nation with over 300 million people. So the consequences of Trumpism could affect us in a way Jim Jones never did.”
Especially if you don’t drink the Trump Kool-Aid™.